Where are they now? Barry ‘Briggo’ Briggs is a speedway legend who is still racing at 81-years-young | Columns | Gassit Garage
Briggo is one of the biggest personalities in motorcycling, and has been friends with a host of legends. The Kiwi brought speedway to the mainstream, and his wild adventures after he quit make Indiana Jones look like a bookworm
You’ve done and seen a lot in your time as a racer, tell us about your incredible career.
I’m 81 years young but I started off sliding in an unusual way. My cousin would tow me across the gravel roads on my pushbike, while he was riding his Matchless. He’d get me up to speed and then I’d throw it sideways, just like speedway! My mum was always asking, ‘what ever are you doing with your left shoe?’ I got into speedway at 17 and after a season of racing I went to England to ride for the Wimbledon team, which was captained by my local hero Ronnie Moore. He helped me immensely, and like him, I finally won the World Solo Speedway Championship. Four times in fact in 1957, ’58, ’64 and ’66. Since then I’ve competed in the Baja 1000, Japanese Ovals for gambling, scrambles, grass-track, trials and even ice racing.
Any real road racing in there?
Yes, back in NZ I road raced a JAP with ‘sit-up and beg’ handlebars, supermoto style. A slide here and there never fazed me, but I remember halfway through one of my races I felt a slight drizzle, which on the rubber left from the previous Bruce McLaren’s car racing blokes, made the road incredibly slippery. I was leading the race on the last lap and just about lost it on one corner… I knew at the next corner I was definitely going to hit a lamp post so I laid it down speedway style, but the New Zealand IOM TT captain was behind me and didn’t know how to drop his Manx Norton so instead he ran over my head! After a couple of weeks my head finally returned to its normal size. I can still hear the bloody Aussie speedway boys chuckling about it!
I’m sure you’ve had plenty of other close calls during your 70-odd years of racing.
Sure, but I see myself as incredibly lucky. How many people can earn their living doing what they love? I’ve had a chance to do that with motorcycles and of course racing. I still get out riding my 250 Yamaha, 2000 metres up in the mountains here in California. I will ride anywhere if I can. When I was in Brisbane, Titters [Aussie Speedway legend John Titman] gave me his best KTM to ride out in the rough. In August I did the parade lap at the Isle of Man Classic TT on Nick Jefferies’ RC30. That was scary. A couple of years ago I went to the Burt Munro Challenge where I did a long-track demo. But just before going out they double watered the track, and after competing one lap flat-out I lost the front at the start of my second lap and did a ‘rock and roll’ for 150 metres. Looking back on it, I should have waited but smart arse me thought that I could do it blindfolded. Wrong. I ended up breaking my bloody ankle.
You knew Burt?
Yeah, I knew Munro well. On one trip he took me down to his local beach to show me his bike go. I was so scared that he would offer me a ride on it – 70km/h would be as fast as I would have wanted to go. At the beach he pulled out his helmet and I just about died. It was a steel Dad’s Army helmet. I was in shock and said, “Jesus Burt, you can’t ride with that!” so I ended up giving him my new Bell helmet. Burt was a real character – a lover of the ladies who didn’t mind the odd drink either. Sadly he died without knowing he was a world star.
Is it true that you were also called in to teach Steve McQueen how to slide a speedway bike?
I tried to, but Steve and his friends couldn’t do it. They needed time. It’s not that hard, and you could actually teach a monkey to do it, but it’s completely different to riding any other motorcycle. I took Steve, Bruce Brown (creator of hit movie On Any Sunday) and Roger DeCoster (five-time World MX Champion) to a small Californian track to let them have a go. It was a laugh! I was in shorts and T-shirt and did a couple of laps to show what to do. We only had one steel shoe so they were arguing about who would get that most of the time. In the end they all fell off, losing the front, but it was still a lot of fun.
What do you get up to these days?
I live between England and America and just try to enjoy life as much as my body allows. I’ve got tremendous memories about all the great people I’ve met and enjoyed over many years, I’ve written and published eight books. My latest autobiography, Wembley and Beyond, is completely written by me … lucky my computer has spellcheck!
Life carried on after retiring from speedway and I had some great adventures mining gold and diamonds in Liberia, West Africa, plus being thrown into jail by drug-crazed soldiers. I met many of my sporting heroes – some were great, others not so good, but thousands of memories and interesting tales whilst travelling the world with my crash hat looking for a bike to ride. It was great to meet such diverse characters as Evel Knievel and Kenny Roberts.
It’s pretty inspiring that you’re still out travelling the globe and racing.
At my age if all you do is sit in front of the television, your brain gets the signal that you don’t need all your facilities so they get closed down. The saying ‘use it or lose it’ is true and I make a point of getting out regularly on my pushbike or motorcycle to keep my skills and reflexes sharp. I also hit about two buckets of golf balls weekly, and do three-ball juggling which uses both sides of your brain. It also helps your back since you’re always picking up your dropped balls up from the floor!
You’re also dabbling in car racing now too, is that correct?
Yeah, I’m not sure about racing. I’ve had two Indy cars in the garage for 20 years but never really even sat in them. Recently I decided to redo my 1977 1000bhp Drake-Offy engined Indy car. After testing at Fontana Speedway in California I went to Indianapolis in May and June of this year. The hardest part is to get your brain accepting that 320km/h is normal. There is virtually no physical effort but after a 15 lap session I was a mental cripple. For the IOM Legend lap, I went to Ron Haslam’s school at Donington, which was once again to get my brain to accept 210km/h as normal on a motorcycle. I feel once you get your brain and body working together you’ve cracked it!
So you’ve got no concerns about injury then?
I’ve got no ambitions to hurt myself. But I must say for the first time in my life I actually let a little voice in my brain say that I could die on a motorcycle. This was at the IOM when I was having trouble with my bike. I worked out a system on how I was going to close down the odds that I was going lose my great life on a stone wall at the Isle of Man. When the flag was dropped for me to start my lap I ran the Kawasaki as hard as it would go, but only for a quarter mile to the start of the downhill of Bray Hill. I then put my ‘save’ Briggo plan into operation and instead of blasting down Bray Hill at 210km/h I settled for a gentle 120km/h. I certainly wasn’t going to let my ego or bravado splatter me on an IOM wall, and about 10km from the start my mind was put to rest that the bike was great, so I could settle in to having a great ride.
You are only given one life, no re-runs, and you’ve just got to go with it for as long as your health allows. Life is so valuable, so try and not squander it. If I was scared I simply wouldn’t be there. At both my Indy and the IOM TT adventures, yes they were great fun, but when it was over I realised that the foreplay and the learning curve was the real fun. I am a lucky boy at my age to have the opportunity, the lolly, and also the time, plus the mental capabilities to enjoy my adventures. I had a good laugh when world champion Hughie Andersen emailed me and wrote ‘I had heard that being a teetotaler was boring’!
By Paul McCann